From Public Books:
Sci-fi veteran William Gibson’s latest novel, Agency, presents two timelines, one in a postapocalyptic 2136 and the other in our own present. Or almost. In the latter timeline, Clinton beat Trump and Brexit was quashed, a veritable utopia by 2020’s standards. If you judge a world on how highly it values democracy, justice, or the health of the planet, ours does not come off well. What if, Agency suggests, ours is actually the worst of all possible worlds?
Well, maybe not the absolute worst, but certainly there are nefarious forces at work and people keen on making this world as difficult as possible for as many people as possible. And as the America of our actual timeline prepares for another very plausibly disastrous presidential election, this trend seems as though it will continue indefinitely. In this context, Agency and Charles Yu’s latest novel, Interior Chinatown, ask vital questions about world-making and the agencies behind it. Whose world is this? To what ends do the powerful wield their power? And how many people are they willing to throw under the bus in order to keep their kleptocratic mitts on it?
While Agency illuminates the kleptocratic tendencies already at work in 2020, Interior Chinatown brings to the fore the intersections of those tendencies with race, immigration, and class. As our reality becomes ever more Gibsonian in its capacity for science fiction–y dystopias, Yu’s novel contends not only with the status of science fiction (SF) but also with the viability of genre storytelling writ large, a category that would include police procedurals, martial arts films, period dramas, and cartoons. Can such genres encapsulate the loss, or historical preclusion, of individual and collective agency, particularly when it comes to Asian Americans and immigrants? Building on his foray into TV writing (Yu has written and produced for HBO’s Westworld and FX’s Legion, among others), Yu has crafted his beautifully written Interior Chinatown in teleplay format. (It’s even typeset in that annoying Courier font.) In it, aspiring protagonist Willis Wu plays Generic Asian Man Number Three on the cop drama Black and White, hoping to one day land the ultimate role to which an Asian man can aspire in this universe: Kung Fu Guy.
In his short stories and in his brilliant first novel, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, Yu has always engaged with immigrant and Asian American experience and, in particular, with how these populations are excluded from the stories we tell about the future. Asian Americans, Yu writes, are “brochure Americans,” not the kind you picture when you close your eyes and think “American.” Interior Chinatown confronts this same racism in the binary world of Black and White’s plots and story arcs. The show can only tolerate an Asian American guest star for so long before the writers kill off the character: “There’s just something about Asians—their faces, their skin color—it just automatically takes you out of this reality.”
Link to the rest at Public Books